Interview by Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel with “Bild am Sonntag”. Published on 4 June 2017.
Bild am Sonntag: Foreign Minister, at the start of the week you will fly to Ankara for talks on Members of the German Bundestag being allowed to visit the Bundeswehr soldiers stationed in İncirlik. What does Turkey need to promise so the Tornado soldiers can stay there?
Sigmar Gabriel: The Bundeswehr is a parliamentary army. That means that Members of the German Bundestag must be able to visit German soldiers stationed in the country – and not just once, but any time they want. That is laid down in our constitution. Turkey must unequivocally guarantee the right to visit. I am very pleased that Turkey does not call the right for Members of the German Bundestag to visit the NATO base in Konya into question, but rather ensures it. If Turkey is not able or willing to do this in İncirlik for reasons of domestic policy, we should try to agree amicably and in a spirit of partnership on ending the troop deployment.
Would Jordan really be a better place for our soldiers? After all, the country is more a police state than a flagship of democracy.
Jordan has been one of the few bastions of stability in the region for decades. Many western countries, not only Germany, work closely with Jordan. I would have no concerns whatsoever if we stationed soldiers there.
What impact would a withdrawal from İncirlik have on our relations with Turkey?
The deployment of Bundeswehr soldiers in İncirlik is certainly not the only difficult topic in German‑Turkish relations these days. Regardless of whether or not the Bundeswehr remains in İncirlik, we need to look for common ground. We have to stop shouting at each other.
Where do you see potential common ground?
The Turks expect us to take a tougher stance on the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK). The PKK is also banned in Germany because it is highly involved in selling arms and drugs, as well as in extortion, so it is certainly in our interest, too, to dry up its sources of funding and not to give it any leeway in Germany. That is a point Turkey has rightfully raised.
What about the refugee agreement?
This agreement is in the interests of Turkey and the EU. Turkey has taken in far more refugees from Syria than Germany and the EU have. The aim of the agreement is to improve these refugees’ situation with the help of UNHCR, while ensuring a managed and legal intake of refugees in Europe – without people smugglers or traffickers. Withdrawing the Bundeswehr from İncirlik would have no impact on that.
Since the attempted coup a year ago, tens of thousands of people have been arrested in Turkey, including many journalists such as the German-Turkish “Welt” correspondent Deniz Yücel. Will you raise his case during your visit?
Of course. We see no reason for Deniz Yücel to be in prison. The European Court of Human Rights wants to decide soon on his case as a matter of priority. And I think Turkey must also have an interest in accepting and implementing the ruling by the European Court of Human Rights.
Is Donald Trump’s America still our friend?
We have conflicts with the US Administration, but not with America as a whole. And despite many differences and some tough conflicts, no other region in the world is closer to us than the United States in terms of culture, politics and business. We express our opinions and interests clearly and assertively, but we are always willing to reach out in a spirit of friendship.
The US is withdrawing from the Paris Climate Agreement. What does that mean?
If this happens, it will be a setback for the international fight against climate change, as the US is the largest greenhouse gas emitter per capita in the world. And naturally, there is always the danger that other countries will say “well, if the largest polluters are not doing their part, then neither will we”. But because of Germany’s good experiences, we are further ahead than we were ten years ago, thank God. By now, most countries know that protecting the climate is actually good for the economy because energy conservation and new technologies generate economic growth and create jobs. In Germany, over 400,000 people now work in this sector.
Trump has quit the Climate Agreement, barked orders at the NATO partners and derailed the G7 Summit. Do the US President and his “America First” policy mean the end of such multinational formats?
It’s not about the US – it’s about the world. If the US leaves international agreements, other countries will try to take advantage of this gap. We see that in the case of China, for example. However, it will then become even more difficult in trade to enforce western standards such as the protection of human rights, the environment and consumers and to make human rights a feature of economic policy.
Angela Merkel severely reprimanded Trump in a beer tent in Bavaria.
Mrs Merkel is conducting an election campaign. Donald Trump is in a sort of permanent election campaign. And I think it’s right that the German Federal Chancellor expresses our German and European interests self-confidently. But in the long term, we cannot allow German-US relations to develop between beer tents and Twitter. Too much is at stake. If the US distances itself from its western partners, as it did at the G7 Summit, the idea of the West will decline. And let’s not forget that this is not a geographical idea, but rather a universal idea of freedom, democracy and the strength of the law rather than the law of the strong. However, we will have to fight to keep the US on side, as well as for ourselves and our ideas.
And now in particular, Europe is in a desolate state – Brexit, the row on refugees, youth unemployment...
I strongly disagree with that description. Of course Europe has its difficulties. There’s no doubt about that. But it is certainly not in a desolate state. Unlike many other regions around the world, there is peace in Europe. The economy is growing again and unemployment is falling, albeit too slowly. People live in greater peace, security and democracy in Europe than in any other region in the world. Most people around the world would be happy to only have our problems.
So we’re living in the best Europe ever.
Yes, definitely. Sixty years ago, the scars of the war could be seen and felt everywhere. Forty years ago, not only Germany, but Europe as a whole, was divided by the Iron Curtain and we were pitted against each other in opposing military alliances. There was war and civil war in south‑east Europe 25 years ago. And just under ten years ago, we were in the grip of a devastating financial and economic crisis. We have overcome all that. Now, I am certainly not one of those who say everything is fine in Europe. There is enough work to be done. But we need to stop being downhearted! Europe is far from perfect. But we are experiencing the best Europe ever. And we will make it better in the same way we have always managed to improve things. Just ask the people in Bulgaria, Poland or Croatia if they are worse off than they were 30 years ago. It used to be a matter of life and death in Europe – now we mainly argue about money. What luck!
Do the Germans need to be willing to spend more money on Europe?
Every euro we spend on Europe pays off twice or three times for us Germans. We export 60 percent of our goods and services to Europe and not, say, to China or the US. Our neighbours only buy our cars, machinery, steel and electrical engineering products when they are doing well. If our neighbours fare badly, millions of Germans will lose their jobs. That is why any investment in Europe is an investment in the future of our own country. Germany is the great beneficiary of European integration.
You’ve changed your tune. When you were Economic Affairs Minister, you attacked Greece and said “we will not allow the exaggerated election promises of what is partly a communist government to be paid for by German workers and their families”.
Exactly! At the time, the new Greek Government was refusing to carry out a programme of reforms. It actually just wanted money. That is why Martin Schulz, who was President of the European Parliament at the time and is now running for Chancellor for the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD), and I said that was not acceptable. Greece had to do its own homework. But following tough talks, that is exactly what happened from 2015 onwards. Moreover, the Greeks undertook a reform package that makes our social welfare reforms in Germany look like a walk in the park. And I think Greece now deserves for us to keep our part of the deal. Back then, we said that we wanted to help reduce Greece’s debts if the country itself made an effort to undertake reforms. And we are at exactly that point now.
With regard to Trump, if Europe wants to become stronger and more independent from the US, it will have to spend far more money on its military, right?
First of all, Europe needs to use the money it spends on its military in a better way. We spend 45 percent of the US military budget, but our efficiency is a mere 15 percent. We need joint procurement programmes and much stronger integration between the European armies.
How does that fit in with your disarmament plans?
To be honest, we would actually save money in Europe if we finally started working together in a better way. But I would go even further and say that I am definitely in favour of the Bundeswehr being better equipped, as 12 years of defence ministers from the Christian Democratic Union of Germany (CDU) or Christian Social Union (CSU) have led to a situation where we have too few soldiers and our equipment is inadequate. This started with CSU Defence Minister zu Guttenberg’s Bundeswehr reform, which was an utter failure. He wanted to save eight billion euros per year on Bundeswehr spending. His CDU colleague Ursula von der Leyen now has to deal with the consequences.
So you’re in favour of raising defence expenditure to two percent of GDP, as US President Trump demands?
Providing the Bundeswehr with better equipment does not mean doubling the defence budget. That’s what the US President is demanding. In Germany, that would mean over 70 billion euros per year. Our schools are dilapidated, but we’re supposed to spend such vast sums on weapons? And when CDU politicians in the Federal Ministry of Finance then demand that this be funded via cutbacks in social welfare, it all gets completely crazy.
In view of Russia’s rearmament, we should actually rearm too, shouldn’t we?
Unfortunately, you’re right. Not only Russia, but the whole world, is rearming, as is NATO. And there is no more talk about disarmament and arms control. I think former SPD Federal Chancellor Helmut Schmidt was right. He always supported a dual approach. He wanted to have defence capability, but at the same time he negotiated on disarmament. That was how the Intermediate‑Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF Treaty) came about. It bans land‑based intermediate‑range nuclear missiles in Europe. This particular achievement in disarmament policy is now in acute danger. We are facing a wave of nuclear and conventional rearmament around the world, including in Europe. That’s why Martin Schulz, who is running for Chancellor for the SPD, is right in wanting to follow in Helmut Schmidt’s footsteps and to launch a new disarmament initiative.
The Bundeswehr has been involved in anti-terror activities in Afghanistan for 15 years. The number of attacks is on the rise. The German Embassy in Kabul has just been attacked. Has the mission failed?
No. The Afghans are asking us not to withdraw because the situation is deteriorating. That shows how important our commitment is. And by the way, this work is not only of a military nature – it also includes political and development work.
But Afghanistan is becoming a permanent mission, although the aim of a successful mission is to be able to end it.
That’s right. But you cannot create peace purely by military means anywhere in the world. We are trying to bring about a political settlement between the opposing sides in Afghanistan. Making peace is something you do with your enemies rather than your friends. There also need to be talks with the Taliban in order to achieve a peace agreement in Afghanistan.
When will Germany start deporting people to Afghanistan again?
We will reassess the security situation by mid‑July. Until then, only criminals and people who pose a threat will be deported, but not anyone who has done nothing wrong.
You have been Foreign Minister for four months and handed over the chairmanship of the SPD to Martin Schulz. Peer Steinbrück, a former candidate for Chancellor for the SPD, claims you were so relieved about this that you put a candle in your window every day. Is that true?
That’s nonsense. I wonder why people who have their party to thank for their entire career go on to speak badly about their own party.
What’s your explanation?
I don’t have an explanation for it. I only know that I will definitely never do that. When you think what Helmut Schmidt had to put up with – and the same goes for Gerhard Schröder or for Helmut Kohl, Rainer Barzel and Angela Merkel in the CDU. None of them spoke badly about their party in the end. It’s a question of attitude.
Party chairperson, candidate for Chancellor, Secretary General, Chairperson of the Parliamentary Group, Deputy Chancellor – they’re all men. Is it a problem that all top positions in the SPD are held by men?
Five of the SPD’s seven members of the Government are women. We never had that before. The SPD can be very proud of this.
Since Martin Schulz was unanimously elected as your successor, things have been going downhill for the SPD. The party has lost three regional parliamentary elections and has fallen way behind in the polls. Can Martin Schulz still become Chancellor?
The SPD took a hammering in the regional parliamentary elections. But they really have nothing at all to do with Martin Schulz. His message will get through. I’m sure of that. He will not rest on the laurels of past achievements, but will instead ensure that Germany is still economically successful in ten years’ time by investing in education, infrastructure and research. He wants more people to share in our country’s prosperity and to make things fairer both in Germany and Europe. This triple focus on the future, justice and Europe is exactly what must happen in Germany. Otherwise, there is a risk that the standstill under the CDU‑FDP coalition and the lobbyism of the CDU and the Free Democratic Party (FDP) will be repeated. This alternative is clear and would paralyse our country. And that is why the SPD has every chance of winning the election, with Martin Schulz as Chancellor.
But then you would not be able to stay on as Foreign Minister, as the coalition partner would want the Federal Foreign Office for itself...
Sometimes you have to make sacrifices in life.